MPs' surgeries fast becoming legal A&Es
Joined-up approach key to tackling unmet legal need, new report concludes
New evidence published this week has found that cuts to legal aid have turned the surgeries of London MPs into legal A&Es as constituents struggle with housing law, immigration, and welfare issues.
Of 352 issues raised by 325 constituents at the surgeries of 21 London MPs, 89 per cent were legal. The most common areas of concern highlighted between October and November 2016 were those affected by civil legal aid cuts – housing (37 per cent), immigration (23 per cent), and welfare benefits (13 per cent). In total, 22 per cent of all legal problems recorded related to a disability, including one-quarter (29) of 117 housing-related issues.
Many MPs have said housing has become the biggest problem reported at their surgeries, with one unnamed MP estimating that housing issues now account for 80 per cent of the cases they handle. Housing benefits cuts and changes to housing association policies have ‘consistently confused constituents’, driving up the need for advice on housing rights – particularly for those at risk of homelessness. However, a caseworker for one MP suggested that even if wider support was available, it might be impractical for constituents to enforce their rights given the housing shortage.
In total, less than one-third of the 73 London MPs who were approached engaged with the research. Junior lawyers at Hogan Lovells, who assisted with the survey, told of the difficulty of persuading MPs to take part as access to justice was ‘not a priority’ for ‘one or two’. Labour's Andy Slaughter, who did participate, said MPs had gone from being ‘the last port of call to the first’ since LASPO was introduced, and described how parliamentarians were now providing a ‘firefighting service’.
The report highlights several ways that unmet legal need in London could be addressed to bring about a sea change: training for caseworkers on identifying legal issues, legal aid availability, and referral resources; greater access to public legal education; increased funding for advice charities, law centres, and citizens’ advice bureaux; and greater collaboration between lawyers, MPs, and charities to ensure effective allocation of resources.
Yasmin Waljee OBE, Hogan Lovells’ international pro bono director who led the project in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pro Bono, told Solicitors Journal the time had come for greater collaboration from all stakeholders.
‘The pro bono community needs to put the pieces of its rather scattered jigsaw together and support MPs’ offices and their constituents to use the resources at their disposal more efficiently. It is not that there are no resources to tackle the issues; the bigger problem is organising these resources into a complete picture and informing MPs about that picture that is easy to use. One cannot happen without the other and it requires a continued and systematic effort on both sides,’ she said.
‘In addition, there is a call for increased funding to free advice centres and charities for volunteer lawyer co-ordination which would leverage more volunteer pro bono lawyers who can assist with end-to-end casework representation where legal aid is not available. There is a particular case to be made for resources to be focused on housing advice.’
Waljee also suggested that an annual survey of London MPs could further highlight the problems surrounding access to justice in the capital. More firms and politicians could become involved nationwide, increasing the possibility of driving policy change. ‘Ultimately there is a need to join up the dots between the consequences for individual constituents and policy positions being adopted. More often than not, these are common for all MPs, regardless of their political affiliation.’
Legal Action Group director Steve Hynes told Solicitors Journal: 'Many MPs seem to manage to compartmentalise the problems of their constituents away from the box in their minds labelled policy choices, but it is policies such as the benefits cap which is forcing the poorest and most vulnerable people to pitch-up at their surgeries. They have nowhere else to go due to the cuts to civil legal aid and other publicly funded advice services.
'Many people are caught on a merry-go-round of looking for help with complex problems when the most they can expect is a piece of information they don’t know what to do with or, if they are lucky, a well meaning letter which does not get acted on. Better public legal education, clever interactive websites and other information resources are part of the solution, but this has to be underpinned by experienced lawyers and other advisers who people can talk to. Hopefully we can get away from Brexit-related issues in the general election campaign to get some commitment to this from the next government.'
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal